“Blogs, and Poetics, and Hermeneutics — Oh My!”

Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.1  While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist — it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen!  That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.

Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains.  One of the reasons I like Betsy’s blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments.  Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the “rule of three”,  others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask “what’s the point?”

While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place — each exploring different questions:

1)  How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?

2)  Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?

These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.2  The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature.  It’s the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs.  It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.

If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here.  In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why.  Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine:  they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?).  Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don’t really care about what’s under the hood; instead they’re more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.

Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling — authors, editors, and dramaturges.  People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world — scholars, librarians, and teachers.  I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other.  (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)

So which camp is better?  Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I’d be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn’t absolutely essential.  After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).

Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children’s literature community?  There exists an  unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics — authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.3  Is it messy?  Of course!  Is it frustrating?  Sometimes.  But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?

  1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi … ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.
  2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously — which just made me sound scatterbrained.
  3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences:  ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA).  Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing.  Not cool, conference planning people, not cool…

8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Fuse #8 says:

    Oo. Way to take the already existing ball and run with it!

    I admit that the advantage of blogging, as I see it, is this very cross-fertilization you speak of. I have yet to find the right outlet for it, though. As you mention, conferences separate us into our different packs, as do literary journals. My Children’s Literary Salons try to weave these folks together, but they do little good unless you live in New York. What we really need is a place, virtual or physical, to bring these different opinions and viewpoints and needs together.

    For the record, I think I’m in the hermeneutics camp.

  • You have no idea how jealous I am of these little “salons” you hold. I think part of the reason I’ve been enjoying blogging so much is because it allows me to dip a toe into other waters — I’m not going to go back to graduate school and become an actual scholar, but any time I do have a thought that’s related to the “why” of kid’s books, I can at least put it on this site (or in the comments section of yours!)…

  • As a former English teacher (and Capulet?), I’ve thought about this division a lot — but never seen it so perfectly expressed. I thought of it as a question of being interested in the production versus consumption of literature, but that sounds so passionless, doesn’t it?

    I worry that as a result of our hermeneutics-bias, we English teachers neglect the “poetics” side of the curriculum — at least past middle school. I recall that at one of our English department meetings I was the only teacher of 7 to express an interest in teaching the creative writing elective offered in the high school. It amazed me that we weren’t interested in the production of the very thing we were so passionate about. Of course, I finally came out of my poetics closet and became the Montague I was meant to be…

    Judging by the ranks of writers both aspiring and published, I shouldn’t worry. The bias doesn’t seem to have dampened interest, has it?

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. And to Fuse #8 for sparking it!

  • kbryna says:

    Isn’t the awful joke supposed to be that all literary scholars are just failed/frustrated/bad novelists? [or the related question which I have been asked roughly 98 billion times, whenever I say what it is I do: “Oh, so you want to write books for kids?” No. Actually, I don’t. And I also don’t want to hear YOUR inevitably terrible idea for a children’s book, either]

    I get a lot of fiction-writers as students, and sometimes it’s really awesome – when someone is smart and insightful enough to be able to apply poetics to hermaneutics (or vice versa) or it’s brutal, when a writer stubbornly refuses to admit that a text could mean or do anything other than what the writer explicitly intended. And when I dismiss the author – Death of the Author-style – the fiction writers freak out a little. It’s hard to walk the line. A lot of the MFA poets I’ve known at Pitt have been interested specifically in bridging or blurring the gap between these two camps.

    And I ADORE the Prydain books. They have accrued a fair amount of nostalgia which contributes to my love of them. And my thinking about them was enriched vastly when I actually read some of the Mabinogion – the Welsh myth/stories/history? – which forms part of the basis for the Prydain stories.

  • Roboseyo says:

    Great post. I think you should get together with a scrappy band of friends – preferably three – and get to the bottom of this during a road trip where plans unexpectedly go awry and much hilarity ensues.

  • James says:

    I’ve been developing a third intellectual discipline which is a combination of the two, called “poemeneutics”. I won’t get into the details, but, it’s definitely BEST.

  • Sondy says:

    This post is completely brilliant! And, yes, even though I’m a librarian and a reviewer, I’m also a writer and am probably more concerned with HOW the writers pull it off. Which is why I focused on the fact that it’s impractical to write a story with more than 3 companions.

  • Sondy: Thrilled to have you at the blog — and glad you liked the post! I know you from comments on Fuse #8 … nice to finally “meet” you.

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